Though it may disappear periodically from the headlines – crushed under the weight of Brexit or more immediate political machinations – the government’s commitment to building 300,000 new homes a year in England is one of the most strategically important policy declarations of recent years. Aimed at tackling the housing crisis, solving issues of affordability and stimulating economic growth, it has prompted much debate and some scepticism. And Homes England may well be the key to deciding whether or not it succeeds.
An arm’s length body which operates autonomously but reports to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the agency occupies an intriguing space between the private sector and Whitehall. This doesn’t constitute “absolute separation” according to head of HR strategy Rob Malpass – himself a civil servant on secondment to aid the organisation’s transformation – but since it began life at the start of 2018 as a replacement for its forerunner, the Homes and Communities Agency, it has undertaken an HR-enabled rethink to become a new type of organisation.
“In HR terms, it’s unusual to be able to have a go at reviewing and improving everything we do, from our recruitment and attraction strategy to how we reward, develop and exit people,” says Malpass. “Everything needs to be updated and transforming the HR function itself is one of those priorities”
The agency, he adds, has plans to double in size – it currently has around 750 employees – as it steps up its mission to support housebuilders through market interventions and offer finance through schemes such as Help to Buy, which work directly with the public. All of which means Homes England employs former investment bankers and land and real-estate experts and competes directly with the commercial market for talent.
And while Malpass concedes a public sector body will never outpay a bank, Homes England needed every aspect of its employee offer to be razor sharp: “We have to compete on other areas of reward, and on the unique nature of the work, the collaborative culture we are trying to embed, as well as things like annual leave or family-friendly policies.”
That has meant a rapid reorganisation over the course of the past 12 months. “This wasn’t about giving people a new line manager. It was about recognising the cultures and sub-cultures we have in the agency, creating a ‘one agency’ culture and using a new set of values and defined behaviours in everything.”
This work began at the top. The entire executive team was invited to a development centre that assessed them against organisational values and helped create a personal development plan. “It wasn’t a high stakes, pass or fail thing,” says Malpass. “It’s about them and their personal journey.
“Maybe restructures in the business previously have been about cutting roles – there have been negative connotations. But today we’re growing, and our development centres will be positive, helpful interventions for people.”
Other employees are now undergoing the same exercise, to introduce a more responsive agency with a clearer mission. This will be undertaken in tandem with two major pieces of work: first, to redefine performance management and ensure it reflects the new values. And more fundamentally, a new grading structure and salary scales will ensure reward is revamped.
“If you’re appointing people into new roles, you need to appoint them into new grades with salaries that are benchmarked,” says Malpass, who adds it is essential this is aligned with fundamental outputs rather than aspirations: “It’s very easy for HR people to come up with this fantastically complicated reward structure, which can be very fun to deliver, but what is it actually helping the business to do?”
Getting this right will mean drawing on expertise in organisational development, and Malpass is clear the discipline has been essential to helping align the multiple strands of the transformation programme. “There are real niche, deep skills OD practitioners have that help the organisation understand where it is now and where it needs to go in the future, and which set it all out in ways that both the people and the organisation can understand – before helping them close that gap between where they are now and where they want to be.”
At the same time, an understanding of psychology is also required, to ensure change is a positive experience and the negative aspects are ameliorated. In any change exercise, adds Malpass, there are people who are more than ready to power ahead, those who aren’t on board, and those who are somewhere in between. The key to negotiating the minefield is to keep things simple: “Try and pick three things you need to change, be clear and demonstrate to the business that you’ve done them well.”
Quite what that means for Homes England will become clear soon. But Malpass is certain of one thing: the agency has to be sufficiently agile to cope with any future political upheaval. The art of public service, he says, is using political acuity to forge greater progress. “We have to keep on, even when there’s a change in government. We’ll know we’ve succeeded when we keep delivering on our goals regardless.”